Why Singling Out Foie Gras Is Counterproductive

Foie gras
Mmmmmmm. (Photo courtesy stu_spivack/Flickr)

In honor of some person named Siouxsie Sioux joining other British public figures in coming out against the sale of foie gras, I figured it was as good a time as any to re-up a piece I wrote for Neon Tommy last year explaining why such people are being silly.

Foie Gras Hypocrisy
July 6, 2012

Foie gras is delicious. It is also, as of this past Sunday, no longer legal to serve in California.

This unfortunate ban on foie gras, which was promoted by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and approved way back in 2004, is focused on the way foie gras is produced, by force-feeding corn to geese through a funnel, which unnaturally fattens the animals’ livers, giving them the enhanced flavor that makes them such a delicacy. Indeed.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit a foie gras farm, and while the feeding process was not the most precious interaction I’ve ever had, the geese did not appear to be in any kind of real distress that made me feel uncomfortable, and I’m a big softie with animals. I’ve encountered much sadder scenes with petting zoo animals having their tails pulled by kindergarteners and house pets resigned to a life in frilly sweaters.

Force-feeding may not be the best part of a goose’s life but in the world of modern food production, it does not seem so far out of the norm to warrant special attention. So why is foie gras now Animal Enemy No. 1?

What foie gras does provide is a convenient opportunity for people who want to feel like they did something for animal rights to pat themselves on the back without making any personal sacrifices on their end. Foie gras is not exactly a staple food in America, so it’s an easy scapegoat (scapegoose?) for hypocrites who won’t give up food they like, often produced in ways and facilities that the artisan foie gras producer would find shocking, to target in the name of self-righteousness.

If foie gras is beyond the pale, why does lobster get a pass? Being kept in a plastic tank in a mall steakhouse and then boiled alive has to be worse than being force-fed corn in a small farm in the French countryside. The same goes for crawfish, blue crabs (which are often cut in half, alive, and then boiled) and much of the shellfish family. Seems hypocritical to want to ban foie gras and not live boiling, but I guess crustaceans just aren’t as cute and sympathetic as pretty birds.

When stone crabs are caught, they have one or both claws ripped off and are then released back in the water, where they can re-grow them. While this method actually makes for an ecologically sustainable fishery, it does seem cruel to toss a bunch of declawed crabs back into the ocean, where increased mortality rates show they probably endure a pretty miserable existence as they unsuccessfully compete for food and mates with fully equipped crabs. Again, I’d rather have regular force-feedings than periodic hand removal, but maybe that’s just me.

Kosher and halal butchery has been alleged by animal experts to cause severe pain and suffering to animals. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise; thanks to the internet and al-Qaida, we are now acutely aware of the sights and sounds of a conscious, awake being having his throat slashed, which is what those methods essentially consist of. Some European countries have banned or have floated the idea of banning this type of slaughter but it remains perfectly legal in California, and any pushback would probably be much harder in this country than anywhere else given our First Amendment and all.

Then there’s the real elephant in the room: factory farming. A system that has been able to produce meat that people of all income levels in our society can afford to not only eat, but waste on a daily basis cannot also be concerned about animal welfare.

Journalists and animal activists who have been inside factory farms back this point up, reporting consistently on conditions horrifying in both their lack of cleanliness and compassion. From the Huffington Post article linked above:

The natural lifespan of a dairy cow is about 25 years, but one-fourth of California’s dairy cows are slaughtered each year (typically at four or five years old), because they’ve become crippled from painful foot infections or calcium depletion, or simply because they can no longer produce the unnaturally high amounts of milk required of them.

Alas, since nobody wants to give up $5 steaks and $1 chicken sandwiches, the foie gras farmers have become the real threats to animal welfare in this state. This is a nice example of selective morality and convenient outrage at obscure targets tied to a niche good.

There is an obvious limit to the amount of humanity involved in any process that is fundamentally about killing and eating an animal. If we are going to take an animal’s life in the name of barbecue, we should at least salvage whatever limited respect we can still show it by using the whole animal and more importantly, recognizing the work and sacrifice that paves the farm-to-table journey.

This is where the foie gras critics are really missing the point. We can argue semantics about whether a goose at a foie gras farm or a Louisiana crawfish has it worse, but when we bite into a rich hunk of goose liver or drink the glorious nectar that is in the head of the crawfish, we are definitely cognizant of what we are eating and have a good idea where it came from. When we bite into some fast-food particleboard patty, we have no clue.

Michael Pollan touched on this in his bestselling book The Omnivore’s Dilemma:

What is perhaps most troubling, and sad, about industrial eating is how thoroughly it obscures all these relationships and connections

Foie gras, by its nature, has to be produced with a lot of human interaction and at farms that can’t be too large and mechanized. Force-feeding may be off-putting to some but attacking small farmers in the name of animal welfare is counterproductive.

Yes, PETA, I know how foie gras is made. I am not trying to hide from any connection to the process. I appreciate both the care put in by the farmer and the sacrifice made by the goose. I am happy to consume one of its offal meats, so as not to let it go to waste.

Our culture now doesn’t seem to mind waste. Sure, it’s fun to watch Gordon Ramsay lose it and throw a pork chop in the garbage (“it’s RAW!”), but we’ve all seen people at restaurants force the staff to dump a perfectly good steak or piece of chicken for some asinine reason, and the legions of kids who only eat white meat chicken nuggets, happy to banish the rest of the bird to lesser uses.

We can afford to be selective and wasteful because we have cheap meat that is so parceled and commercialized that we don’t even think of rubbished servings as animals who have died in vain. Portion sizes have become comical at many places; huge portions can bring good PR, and the downside of food waste is just not a big economic issue anymore. Often, restaurants throw out food rather than give it to homeless because the fear of liability outweighs both the value of meat and general human decency.

The real threat to animal welfare is cheap meat, made possible by mechanization and conditions that the big factory farms have had to deliberately obscure from consumers to avoid public backlash. The identified threat to animal welfare is foie gras, because giving it up requires no sacrifice. Banning foie gras in California will only force it underground or into other states, doing nothing for animals and discouraging the establishment of the type of small farms that foster better practices.

It is easy to point fingers at fancy food but singling out foie gras is not an attempt to solve a real problem. In this case, what is good for the gander is also good for the goose.